Feature Article


From the Hip

The intellectual argument in favor of
restrictive gun control is collapsing. So how come the
political strength of its advocates is increasing?


Mr. Polsby is Kirkland and Ellis professor of law at Northwestern University.

RECALL the triumphalism of gun-control activists as the 1996 election returns rolled in. You could float a battleship in it. Above all, there was President Clinton's easy return to office; but there was plenty to brag about on the undercard. Liberal Mary Landrieu had defeated gun-rights-friendly Woody Jenkins in their Senate race -- in Louisiana, the ``hunters' paradise,'' as the license plates say. Republican Al Salvi, strongly backed by the rank-and-file of the Illinois State Rifle Association, was skunked in his Senate bid by Democratic Rep. Dick Durbin, who, as he claimed victory on election night, gushed over America's most visible gun-control crusaders, Jim and Sarah Brady, who were seated next to his lectern. Elsewhere in Illinois, Republican Michael Flanagan, who had vanquished Dan Rostenkowski last time around and then gone on to oppose the assault-weapons ban, lost badly to the gun-hating son-in-law of a Chicago alderman. In Missouri, voters in the 9th District denied Harold Volkmer, among Democrats the most stalwart friend of the National Rifle Association's legislative agenda, his 11th term in the House. Dan Frisa, of New York's 4th District, was drubbed by Republican-turned-Democrat Carolyn McCarthy, in an election where Frisa's ``Nay'' on the assault-weapons bill was virtually the only issue. As this result transpired, the network newsreader I was listening to could barely contain his gloat. It seemed almost the last straw when the returns from California, after a lag of many days, indicated that B-1 Bob Dornan had also been retired to the world of political consultancy.

Once the dust had settled, the gun-rights crowd took stock and decided things weren't so bad after all. After all, the Jenkins and Dornan elections might have been stolen (and their results may yet be reversed). Flanagan and several of his classmates had been virtually accidental congressmen in the first place, elected in strongly Democratic districts in the tsunami of 1994. And many of the apparent disappointments did not represent net losses for the cause of gun rights. Durbin hates the idea of firearms in private hands, but no more so than Sen. Paul Simon, the man he succeeded. Republican Kenny Hulshof, who beat Volkmer on his second try, is at least as gun-friendly as his predecessor, and more conservative generally. Firearms-rights activists have been enjoying such consolations for the past four months. They're kidding themselves. Though they have had more than their share of state-level legislative successes, their side of the argument is losing the national debate, and losing badly.

In a democracy, public policy is tailored to what people believe, no matter what the facts might be. For weapons policy, the point is not the connection between guns and extreme violence, or between gun-control laws and the prevalence of guns, but rather how people see the connection. We know that many crimes, murder and robbery especially, are committed with guns -- many more, both proportionately and absolutely, than in the Eisenhower decade. In recent years, the homicide-victimization rates for young males, especially young black males, have skyrocketed, with most of the increase attributable to firearms wounds. We also know that guns have been increasing their market share as a means of suicide.

But are these trends the byproduct of there simply being too many guns available to people? And would banning handguns or assault rifles reduce this availability and thereby drive down rates of murder and suicide? If your answer to these questions is ``yes,'' then cheerleading for gun rights will look mighty like cheering for murder and suicide and opposing common decency. But ``yes'' is the wrong answer, at least without a load of qualifications. Firearms violence does not correlate with how many guns there are in a given population; it correlates with how they are distributed in that population -- that is, who has them and for what purpose. Gun-control laws characteristically ignore that distinction, and usually aim only to limit the number of weapons in circulation. This is why their effects have usually been disappointing if not counterproductive. There is plenty of evidence to substantiate this case, and little to dislodge it. But who ever heard of evidence when the gun-control winds begin to blow?

Politicians of both parties have tended to play firearms issues as a straight interest-group bidding contest. The sources from which most people get their information -- television networks and major newspapers, above all the New York Times -- have done no better. They have chosen sides -- and almost all the same side. They have helped the public to believe that private ownership of firearms, of handguns especially, is the major reason why America's homicide rate exceeds those of other industrialized nations. The case is closed so far as they are concerned, closed so completely that they have left a genuinely big firearms story all but uncovered. That story is that the so-called ``instrumentality theory,'' which connects the prevalence of guns to high rates of death by violence, has virtually collapsed.

UNTIL the late 1960s the connection between firearms and violence was not much of a public issue, and certainly not a partisan one. American liberalism's greatest postwar figure, Hubert Humphrey, was a devoted shooter of game birds, but his views about guns were not limited to sport. He also believed something that in today's liberal circles would be received as in essence psychotic, namely that, in having institutionalized widespread private firearms ownership, our country had bought itself an insurance policy against tyrannical government.

But so far as the Democratic Left was concerned, the days of that sort of thinking were already numbered. The tocsin for the change was probably Ramsey Clark's Crime in America, published in 1970, which laid out what American liberal, and Democratic, thinking on virtually all crime questions would become. ``Total casualties from civilian gunfire in this century exceed our military casualties in all the wars from the Revolution through Vietnam,'' Lyndon Johnson's attorney general intoned. ``It is not hysteria that demands gun control; it is 8,900 murders, 12,000 suicides, 65,000 assaults, 99,000 robberies -- all committed with guns in the single year of 1968. The toll will rise until we act.'' Yes, but act how? ``If government is incapable of keeping guns from the potential criminal while permitting them to the law-abiding citizen, then government is inadequate to the times. The only alternative is to remove guns from the American scene.''

The intellectual groundwork for Clark's dramatics had been laid two years before, by George Newton and Franklin Zimring, authors of the 1968 staff report of President Johnson's National Commission on the Causes and Prevention of Violence, entitled Firearms and Violence in American Life. Newton and Zimring carefully traced the growth of gun sales in Detroit following a series of riots, and fitted an overall increase of firearms crimes to the general expansion of firearms possession. They repeated the exercise in eight widely separated American cities, with the same result: the proportion of guns used in violent transactions is a function of the overall gun-possession characteristics of a given population. Their most influential contribution may have been comparing violence in the United States with violence in England and Wales, something that ever since has been a stock element in the argument for suppressing firearms sales. England and Wales, which tightly restrict the private possession of handguns and other firearms, have among the lowest murder rates in the world, less than 1 in 100,000 of population for each of the last twenty years, compared to the American rate of 9 or 10 in 100,000, ten to twenty times worse. If one considered only gun murders, Newton and Zimring pointed out, America's record was forty times worse.

This is the outline for what is commonly known as the instrumentality theory of guns and violence. Its claim is not so much that guns ``cause'' crime as that they make the outcomes of whatever crimes there are going to be more deadly rather than less deadly. The claim has a basis in common sense. It is reasonable to think that a certain number of intentional killings would be unfeasible without a gun. And many killings develop out of a domestic brawl or an argument between neighbors and not a specific intention to kill. Murder resulted simply because a gun was handy; without a gun the offender would have used a chair or a knife, and his victim in all probability would have lived. In some number of cases, these intuitions are undoubtedly correct. The question is, How many? And how many offsetting cases are there, in which the presence of a gun averted trouble rather than making it worse?

Ramsey Clark's argument became the most influential framing of the firearms-and-crime problem of its time, and indeed it is influential still, nearly thirty years later. Swallowing it whole, the Federal Government announced a crusade against handguns in 1979. The Public Health Service articulated as its eventual objective the complete eradication of handguns in America, with a 25 per cent reduction in the national inventory by the year 2000. There promptly followed a veritable cascade of research papers, often subsidized or produced by the Centers for Disease Control (``gunshot wound'' having now been deconstructed into a ``disease''), which sought to document, in the panoply of disinterested science, the case against handguns. Many of these papers found weighty publishers, the New England Journal of Medicine among others, and most of them received wide publicity from the news media, above all from the New York Times, which has never made a secret, either on its opinion pages or in its news columns, of its abhorrence of handguns. And so it became a fixture of public discourse that ``science knows'' that a gun in the home is 43 times more likely to kill its owner or a family member than to kill an intruder, that guns have become ``the new polio,'' a calamity which now accounts for more premature deaths of younger Americans than anything this side of AIDS. A rationally ignorant public, most of it two or three generations remote from rural life and daily familiarity with guns, went along. And here we are today.

Almost from the beginning there were nagging anomalies in the instrumentality theory. In 1979, David Bordua, a University of Illinois sociologist, and his student Alan Lizotte published a study of Illinois counties that seemed to show that where guns were found in the greatest percentage of households, the rate of gun crimes was lower, and where they were found in the lowest percentage of households, the rate of gun crimes was higher. The Chicago Metropolitan Crime Survey replicated this result as recently as last year. And the international comparisons in their own terms raise serious questions. After all, even if one sets firearms murders (about 55 per cent of the total in this country) to one side, our domestic-murder rate is still seven or eight times that of England. What accounts for the difference here? Once the door is open for considering the rather substantial differences between the cultures and populations of the two countries, it is open also for asking whether those differences might explain some of the firearms murders. Surely not all those murders are instrumentality effects; some must be written down to other causes.

INDEED, the whole matter, fairly weighed, is much more complicated than the standard account supposes. There are firearms effects on both sides of the violence equation. An accumulation of survey research points to the conclusion that guns are used defensively and lawfully much more often than they are used in crimes -- twice as often, according to a recent Police Foundation survey co-authored by Florida State University criminologist Gary Kleck and Duke University criminologist Philip Cook, who found at least a million and a half defensive uses per year. Guns do inflict wounds that tend to be much more medically dangerous than the wounds inflicted by knives, but as Kleck found, when guns are used, whether by criminals or by the law-abiding, they make confrontations much less likely to result in woundings in the first place.

But the anomalies run much deeper than that sort of cost accounting allows. After all, it is wrong to pretend that handguns or any other sorts of firearms are ``more available'' today than they were in prior generations. Thirty years ago, handguns, shotguns, rifles, and ammunition could be bought over the hardware-store counter almost anywhere in the country by almost any adult. Anyone, sight unseen, could mail-order guns and ammunition and have them delivered by the United States Postal Service, COD, a fact that anyone with some 1950s vintage Popular Mechanics magazines can corroborate. In fact, firearms have been less available since the Federal Firearms Act was passed thirty years ago, followed by the proliferation, at every level of government, of new restrictions and sometimes outright prohibitions on the legal possession of guns.

The availability of guns aside, if the instrumentality theory were going to hold anywhere, it should be in the home, because people spend more time there than anywhere else, and because guns are kept there more than they are kept anywhere else. It appears, moreover, that despite increasingly restrictive legislation, between 1980 and 1992 the national handgun stock increased by 40 per cent and the proportion of households in which a firearm is present has held at somewhere above 40 per cent. The instrumentality theory makes a distinct prediction about this state of affairs, namely that the interspousal homicide rate would increase considerably in that period. In fact it has not, but rather has been steady or falling throughout this period, according to a study by James Mercy and Linda Salzman in the American Journal of Public Health. We see basic confirmation of this trend, moreover, in the changes that have occurred in national statistics in the ratio of manslaughters to murders. The instrumentality theory predicts that impulsive killing should increase as a percentage of homicides as the handgun stock increases. This prediction has not been borne out. Table 304 in the Statistical Abstract Data Book for 1993 tells us that killings provoked in the course of arguments represented 40 per cent of reported homicides in 1980 and 32 per cent in 1991, which is a 20 per cent decline in this period.

Some of this decline is undoubtedly due to advances in emergency medicine, but it is unlikely that all of it is. In fact, there is an instrumentality-ironic twist to this trend which may not be readily apparent. All through this period, handguns, the most demonized of all classes of firearms, were displacing shotguns and rifles as the preferred tools of last resort in home security applications. When domestic gunfire breaks out, far better that it be with a handgun than with a long weapon, because the latter will inflict far more life-threatening wounds. Thus do domestic quarrels, which probably occur with a statistically constant frequency, become less deadly.

Chicago statistics, carefully kept and released annually by the Detective Bureau of the city's Police Department since 1965, bear witness to the same general drift. Over the course of the past thirty years there has been a striking trend away from homicides among relatives, romantic interests, step-relatives, in-laws, quasi-in-laws, neighbors, and friends. Domestic and acquaintance homicides accounted for nearly half of all killings in Chicago thirty years ago; recently they have been around 15 per cent of the total. Indeed, an interesting fact of record -- which of course has never been published in either of Chicago's socially responsible, gun-control-favoring newspapers -- is that the actual number of these sorts of killings per annum has diminished in thirty years, from 183 such killings in 1965 to 147 in 1994, which is more than proportionate to the city's population decline. To be sure, city murders have increased very dramatically -- 930 in 1994, compared to 395 in 1965. But every bit of that increase has been among ``non-friend acquaintances,'' strangers, or persons unknown. In other words, gang killings with illegal guns.

Though international comparison is a favorite device of instrumentality theorists, this artifice is usually kept in modest seclusion when the subject of suicide comes up. No doubt this is because some of the highest suicide rates in the world are found in countries, like Japan, Hungary, and Germany, that have some of the toughest and most effective prohibitions on civilian gun possession. And so the account of the suicide risk of privately held guns is usually given as Ramsey Clark gave it, with a wringing of the hands, leaving as a sort of res ipsa loquitur the embedded premise that, with fewer guns around, of course there would be fewer suicides. It is an uncommonly silly inference, not only because it does not follow logically, but because it is contrary to readily ascertainable facts. The suicide rate in this country, which has fluctuated little in recent years, does not track the number or distribution of guns in large or in fine. If people of both sexes are showing an increasing preference for handguns as a means of self-destruction, one should presume no more than that they prefer a low-tech, quick, and relatively painless way out.

Suicides remain today what they have long been: generally a phenomenon of older white males. Rates are lower for women than for men, and lower for non-whites than for whites. According to a report published in the August 9, 1995, issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association, between 1980 and 1992 -- while the handgun stock in the United States increased by approximately 40 per cent -- suicide rates among persons aged 25 and younger declined from 5.7 per 100,000 to 5.4 per 100,000. This is, of course, the very age group whose homicide victimization has exhibited the most startling spike in this same time period. The instrumentality theory is in ruins. And the worst of it has not yet been told.

In the last year or two, Texas, Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, and a number of other states have relaxed their restrictions on the carrying of concealed handguns by civilians. When the late returns come in, these changes may yet save the instrumentality theory from the dustbin, but the early returns are not encouraging. ``I'm detecting that I'm eating a lot of crow on this issue,'' Harris County District Attorney John Holmes recently professed. Holmes's jurisdiction, the third most populous county in the United States, includes Houston. Holmes was one of many who predicted that ``blood would run in the streets'' when the Texas concealed-carry law came into effect 14 months ago. It hasn't happened. In fact, with 112,000 new concealed-carry permits issued, there have been all of 57 ``incidents'' recorded among licensees, mostly, according to The Texas Lawyer, involving possessing while intoxicated or failing to conceal the weapon. Eating crow is ``not necessarily something I like to do,'' Holmes told The Texas Lawyer, ``but I'm doing it on this.''

It is a remarkable story, when one thinks about it. After all, the instrumentality theory is not completely vacuous. A good deal of deadly violence is indeed of the impulsive variety, and adding guns to tantrums must often lead to a certain amount of trouble. And if rational rather than impulsive behavior is the issue, relaxed concealed-carry laws do raise a real concern, what strategy theorists call the ``first mover'' problem. Suppose an angry quarrel breaks out between two strangers. Neither one knows whether the other is armed, but each knows if he himself is. Because whoever gets his gun out first (the ``first mover'') has a strategic advantage, an armed man in this situation might well think it better to go for his gun first and ask questions afterward. If both players are armed, both should reason thus. The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is the predicted result. Yet such incidents seldom occur. Evidently the reality is more complicated than the model allows.

The problem with the ``first mover'' formulation is that it focuses on two people only and assumes away the whole rest of the world. But an antagonist cannot make such an assumption. What if he pulls a gun on an unarmed man? What if bystanders, themselves armed, arrest him or finger him for the police? What if he shoots his antagonist, and armed bystanders gun him down? For rational actors, these are pacifying incentives. Better keep one's shooting iron put up unless and until the end is nigh. Call this the ``strategic pacification'' effect of firearms.

The Florida experience with liberalized concealed-carry laws is the proper place to end our excursion. As of 1988, when it liberalized its law, Florida had one of the country's highest murder rates. As happened two years ago in Texas, Florida public officials and newspaper editorialists outdid themselves with lurid predictions: blood in the streets, the O.K. Corral, High Noon, John Wayne, and so on. As in Texas, nothing of the sort resulted. Within a few years something like 150,000 permits were outstanding, but fewer than ten felony offenses have been committed in all this period of time with properly authorized guns, none involving homicide. And in fact, the state's murder rate has fallen in every single year since the law was changed, and now is below the national average.

THE phenomenon received wide coverage (including in this magazine) and was on its way to making a serious dent in the instrumentality theory when, in the nick of time, the, um, cavalry arrived, in the unlikely incarnation of three University of Maryland criminologists -- David McDowall, Colin Loftin, and Brian Wiersema -- who were able to extract a dark and portentous lining from the supposed silver cloud. They looked at the effects of relaxed concealed-carry laws over various periods in five counties, one in Oregon, one in Mississippi, and three in Florida. Not only did they find no evidence for the phenomenon of strategic pacification, they found, in three of the five counties studied, that relaxing concealed-carry laws increased gun murders significantly. Their results created a sensation. The New York Times ran two stories on the study, several months apart. The second of them bore the misleading headline, ``Study Links Rise in Killings to Relaxed Gun Laws.''

It would have taken an astute reader indeed to discern that McDowall and his colleagues had discovered no such thing. What they found, in fact, was an increase in gun killings, not all killings; and the difference is crucial. Why limit oneself to considering gun killings when the puzzle is why rates of murder from all causes are in free-fall with so much more gun carrying going on? The instrumentality theory needs better support than this study, which was weak in other respects as well. Most notably, it selected only some years and some counties for study, leaving out of the analysis a great deal of data that were as readily accessible as those they used. Why not use the experience of all Florida's counties, and all the counties in Mississippi and Oregon? And why those places and not other places where licenses have been available and held by significant numbers of people, such as Pennsylvania, Connecticut, or Indiana? And why limit oneself to gun homicides when uniform crime records are kept of all homicides, and indeed for all serious crimes, back to the mid 1970s? What might one learn if such a larger study were done?

Actually, such a study was already in progress even as McDowall and his colleagues were enjoying their 15 minutes of fame. John Lott, one of the country's leading econometricians and John Olin Fellow at the University of Chicago Law School, and David Mustard, a graduate student in the university's economics department, had undertaken one of the largest statistical studies of crime ever mounted. Taking every county in the country (there are 3,054, all told) and every crime category of which the U.S. Department of Justice keeps track, over every year for which such data were available (1977 through 1992), Lott and Mustard tried to model what happened when concealed-carry laws were relaxed. Their conclusions were stunning. Not only did they find a strategic-pacification effect, they found that it was very large, and that it was most pronounced in the counties where death by violence had been most prevalent. Furthermore, at the same time that confrontational crimes diminished in the presence of liberalized carry laws, non-confrontational crimes (like auto theft and larceny) increased. Bad guys moving into safer lines is one of the predicted effects of strategic pacification.

The Lott - Mustard study was available in draft last summer. As one might imagine, it threw national gun-control activists into near hysteria. They were issuing denunciations and calling it fraudulent before they had seen it -- and offering the canard that Lott, a former Wharton School professor, former chief economist of the U.S Sentencing Commission, and author of dozens of econometric studies, many of them of criminal behavior, was not to be trusted because his position at the University of Chicago was supported by a foundation whose corpus was donated by a member of the family that owns the company that makes Winchester ammunition: so Lott is a hireling of the firearms industry, QED.

Of course these lucubrations are a crock. The Olin Foundation (let alone Winchester) does not give money to Lott; its gift is to the Law School, which appoints Olin Fellows through a committee of professors. Every university in the country launders capitalist pelf in this way, and quite a few others than the University of Chicago, including Harvard, Stanford, and Yale, so launder Olin pelf. After repeating the initial smear, at least the Austin American-Statesman and USA Today offered printed clarifications. Though the matter has long since been put to rest, Josh Sugarman, executive director of the Violence Policy Center, has continued to press the Olin connection on national television (as recently as a few weeks ago), even as Kristen Rand, the VPC's director of federal policy, has blanketed the country with letters to the editor taking the same line.

NO study as large as Lott - Mustard will escape without criticism. Indeed Lott - Mustard will be the subject of a panel at the upcoming annual meeting of the American Economics Association, where other scholars with the same data set (freely shared by Lott and Mustard) may offer some very different interpretations of it. Moreover, Lott - Mustard has had some serious reservations lodged against it already. Daniel Nagin and Daniel Black, two important students of the economics of crime at Carnegie-Mellon, reject the claim that the Lott - Mustard data show a strategic-pacification effect. If one recomputes the numbers with the Florida experience left out, they contend, the effect disappears. It is possible that the Florida experience is simply a coincidence of the statutory change with a murder rate that rapidly declined for other, unaccounted-for reasons.

Whatever eventually becomes of the Lott - Mustard claim to have found a strategic-pacification effect, this study has changed the conversation about guns in at least one crucial way. It has pushed the instrumentality effect clear off the screen. The entire game is now about measuring the good guns do, rather than the harm they do.

A revolution of this dimension in a public debate so important would seem to be a newsworthy event. The reader probably wonders, given the New York Times's double coverage of the minor-league study by McDowall et al., what the newspaper of record has to say about the Lott - Mustard findings. It is a question with an interesting answer. Not a word about the study has ever appeared in the paper. The make-over at the New York Times goes on apace, with Pravda as the obvious role model. Of course, it would be unfair to place too much censure on the Times's stooped shoulders. Its failure is merely emblematic of the broader theme of dogmatic blindness that afflicts elite opinion on this subject. And so the instrumentality theory of guns and violence lives on in the made-up minds of America's opinion leaders, fresh and beautiful as the day they met her at Ramsey Clark's place, until the end of time.

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